Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Risks of Holiday Travel

These are the powerful and entirely valid feelings that public-health guidance will run up against when Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas arrive. Many people will, unlike Segura, act on those feelings, and it could be dangerous when they do so during the same roughly monthlong stretch of time.

How many people will leave home is an important question. In a typical year, about 50 million Americans travel at least 50 miles from home for Thanksgiving, according to AAA. In this atypical year, it’s not yet clear how large that number will be. On one hand, a survey from Morning Consult in early September found that just under half of Americans are scrapping their usual plans for holiday gatherings. And Gary Leff, a blogger who follows the airline industry closely, told me that based on airport foot traffic this year, he expects the number of flyers during Thanksgiving and Christmas to be no more than half of what it was last year. However, he notes that this year’s uncertainty makes it difficult to predict travel patterns accurately this far in advance.

But on the other hand, air travel usually accounts for just a small fraction—about 8 percent—of Thanksgiving trips overall. The overwhelming majority of Thanksgiving travel is by car, and drivers have hardly been deterred by the coronavirus this year, according to AAA. That is consistent with data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics showing that around the Fourth of July and Labor Day, the number of trips covering 100 to 500 miles rose significantly compared with last year, while the number of trips covering more than 500 miles fell significantly.

Whether or not those patterns hold for the upcoming holiday season, it seems safe to say that tens of millions of people will be spending extended periods of time indoors with friends and family who live outside their household. “Thanksgiving makes me nervous,” says Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine.

He expects lots of Americans to go home for the holidays, even if it’d be much safer if they didn’t. The main threat, in his view, isn’t the traveling or the gathering, but rather the combination of the two. “The actual three and a half hours you spend inside the [plane] is not what I worry about … but bringing people together in the [airport] gate area worries me—we’ve all seen people with their noses sticking out above their mask,” he told me. “But even just driving 45 minutes to someone’s house and sitting around the table at Thanksgiving with people who you don’t normally mix with” is worrying too.

An additional danger is that the coronavirus could spread more easily in the colder months, as other respiratory viruses do. “It’s not just that people are gathering. It’s that they’re gathering amidst the backdrop of this winter-seasonality effect,” Noymer said. “I just don’t see any scenarios, barring a vaccine, in which we don’t have lots of COVID-19 this winter, and Thanksgiving is going to play a role in that,” Noymer told me. (Black Friday, he noted, might play a role as well; aware of this threat (and of would-be shoppers’ fears), many stores are moving away from having a big, single-day sale, instead spreading their deals out over a longer period of time.)

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